Face to Face with Expectations: Social Interactions as Nonvisual Participants
by Elizabeth Sammons and other VisionAware Peers
As anyone who is blind or low vision knows, we experience an entire spectrum of interactions in the sighted world, from professional, to patronizing, from helpful, to humiliating. Among my earliest and most humorous memories as a blind child, my mother would say to restaurant servers, in her most innocent voice, “Well, I don’t know what she wants to order! Why don’t you just ask her?” How empowering my mother’s behavior was, paving my way towards becoming a self-confident nonvisual adult living in the sighted world! This article will explore ways we can respond when interactions go off course.
Particularly if you’re new to blindness or low vision, your world might feel like a landslide in social status, shifting from subject to object, from active to passive, from leader to follower. It may also seem like your needs or presence is inconvenient to others. However, it’s possible to steer conversations to take charge and even help others learn along the way. (Note, this may involve gently but firmly persuading your parents, children, or friends to let you handle situations for yourself, or, if you are sighted, encouraging your nonvisual loved one to speak up more without your direct involvement.)
In my lifetime of being low vision, I’ve been fortunate to meet many amazing strangers who have provided me with information, help, or even safety in unfamiliar situations. However, along the way, I’ve also encountered an entire spectrum of less-than-helpful interactions. While these may overlap, each one demands a unique strategy. I offer stories and examples below from several fellow APH VisionAware peers and my life as we’ve made our way through stores, airports, restaurants, and other public venues and dealt with strangers. Interaction types include ignorance; fear or anxiety; misguided curiosity, sometimes wrapped in good intentions; overzealous offers; overbearing pity; and avoidance and/or hostility.
Day to day, we all interact with people different than ourselves, and we can expect a wide range of initial reactions to our special needs. Before analyzing specific responses to our blindness, it’s important to own up to a few facts. First, most customer service staff and other strangers have little or no experience dealing directly with people who cannot see, and, if they have experience, it is often guided by misconceptions.
Communications, including eye contact, print signs, and symbols, or following other visual cues, are a major part of western society. Communicating without these cues may feel like the carpet has been pulled out from under one. In situations where someone is expected to offer help or services, our nonvisual world is, at best, a surprise and, at worst, a major shock or inconvenience. Recognizing this helps us to be a little more patient as we try to make the social or logistical situation easier to navigate for both parties. To mitigate our natural anger or frustration when dealing with strangers who don’t know us or understand our needs, let’s recognize ourselves as living in a strange land not built with the assumption that we’re there.”
As noted above, the public has few general interactions with the blindness world, particularly interactions of an empowering nature. While most people are aware of braille elevator buttons, white canes/service dogs, or the inconvenience of navigating in the dark, these concepts seldom lead to a real understanding of our everyday needs in the nonvisual world. Responses can range from the idiotic, such as what Maribel told us, asking in preparation for a flight if we can toilet ourselves, to the presumptive, such as our conversation partner yelling at us to be heard or pushing us or pulling us like a cart.
Jeannie told us: “More than once I’ve been talking on the phone and the fact that I’m blind comes up.
“You’re blind? You don’t sound blind!” Her reaction was priceless as she countered, “How does blind sound?”
Sometimes our capable actions can counter the assumptions people hold about us. Like Jeannie, we can also use clever or humorous questions to help people recognize their lack of perspective. At other times, we can walk away from these situations and just shrug or laugh. Once we’re over our shock or dismay, we can remind ourselves they make a good story to tell later on.
Fear or anxiety
Most people, including those in service sectors, want to do their job, or, at least, not to get caught doing the wrong thing. However, the meaning of “the right thing” may swing wildly when the ordinary expectations of visual communication are lacking.
Audrey told us: “Before I was a seasoned traveler, I decided to fly alone to visit a friend. I requested an airport escort to my gate. As this large-and-in-charge person sidled up to me, I immediately had misgivings. She began to grab and drag me along, announcing loudly, ‘Excuse me! Coming through with a blind lady!’… When we arrived at the gate, she walked me up to the desk and said, ‘I have a blind lady here; what do you want me to do with her?’ I felt like a sack of potatoes that needed to be unloaded!”
It’s humiliating [SK2] to get caught up in receiving service on someone else’s terms. On one hand, we realize that not speaking up may reinforce negative behaviors or social expectations that bar progress in the blindness community overall. On the other hand, voicing our dissatisfaction can create its own kind of exhaustion and frustration that could escalate certain undesirable situations. What to do? Obviously, in cases of emergency or urgency, we need to avoid disorder, not becoming oppositional. I’ve tried at times to use humor, such as saying, “It’s just my eyes that don’t work; my legs are fine, and it feels great to walk after that three-hour flight.”
A little humor can also go a long way in dissolving the fear or suppositions of others, especially in unfamiliar environments. My tagline when I know I need to ask for directions, specifics on price tags, or the location of the end of lines or a free chair is, “Excuse me; may I borrow your eyes for a few seconds?” Of course, you never know what reaction you’ll get, but what do you have to lose?
Misguided Curiosity, Sometimes Well-intentioned
I learned the hard way as a kid that, like it or not, other people were watching me most of the time. Some people worry about us, no matter what we’re doing. Jeannie told us: “Several years ago, while navigating through a hotel with my cane, very sure of my route, a lady exclaimed ‘You’re going the wrong way,’ to which I asked, ‘Do you know where I’m going?’ She said nothing more.”
Audrey also told us: “I joined my local gym and was learning to navigate the space with my white cane. After coming for several weeks, a woman approached me and said, ‘I have been watching you for some time now. Do you really need that cane? Because it seems like you can see just fine.’ I took a deep breath and explained that my vision was hard to understand, and yes—I needed the cane to keep myself safe. She seemed skeptical, so I asked her, ‘Do you really think I would fake such a thing, all for the joy of using this nifty cane?!’”
Both Audrey and Jeannie responded to questions with other questions, which showed people why their assumptions were misguided. This often works well in cases of normal or just misguided curiosity. However, when inquiries get out of hand or over-personal, I’ve sometimes fought fire with fire. People ranging from waiters to fellow pedestrians have asked me, “How much can you see?” or “What happened to you?”. “Would you like it if I asked you how much you earn, or about your medical history?” I’ve countered. This usually stops the inappropriate questioner in their tracks.
Some individuals desire to get on a figurative white horse and save somebody. While this is often well-intentioned, results can range from embarrassing, at best, to disastrous. Occasionally, we may even need to factor in safety considerations as we listen to our gut about how someone is proffering what they perceive as help.
What is it about airports that bring out the best and the worst in people? Cindy told us: “The airport assistant, who was my guide, kept grabbing my cane and trying to lead me through the terminal and gate by my white cane. I explained, ‘Please let go of my cane, sir. It needs to stay on the floor. I can simply follow you.’ However, he did it two more times when he seemed to think I was veering off. Judging from his heavy accent during the interactions, he did not seem very comfortable with the English language…. Each time, I stopped walking and again explained. I tried to keep my tone polite and state my needs clearly while also letting him know in simple terms that his actions felt very rude.”
In cases like this, no matter what we say, we can’t influence interactions to go the way we want. Issues of language and culture definitely play significant roles in how people view others. When we have limited control over what someone understands when we speak, it’s complicated, at best. Cindy’s keeping her cool and persisting in trying, even in this situation, speak volumes about advocacy and her own initiative.
Like Cindy, I’ve encountered plenty of folks assuming my inability to do things, from crossing a street to signing my name. “Here, I’ll show you,” I respond at times. One of my father’s best gifts to me was a T-shirt I still have and occasionally wear when I suspect the going will get tough. It states: “LET ME SHOW YOU HOW I CAN’T!” Go ahead and quote that one, any time.
Some people take in disability with a nearly overwhelming emotional reaction. The fear response above sharpens into “If I couldn’t see, I would need someone to do everything for me.”
Cindy told us: “At my local USPS office, I was alone and mailing several packages. After locating the door and walking in, someone came up and tried to take the packages out of my hand. I immediately stopped and asked, ‘Excuse me, do you work here?’ She said, ‘Oh, yes,’ and then grabbed my arm and started pulling me to the counter. I again stopped and asked her to please let go and that I could just follow her. I could tell by her tone that she was surprised. During the mailing process, I made sure that she could see how independent I was in accessing info on my phone and checking out with smart pay.”
It’s often a great idea, as Cindy did, simply to illustrate our abilities and capabilities. This allows us to maximize our independence, while also showing others what we’re capable of. The next time, this service provider might step it down a notch.
I’ve been in emotional situations when corner preachers or other strangers have asked to pray for me. I assume that they want to heal me or show their support. “Yes,” I reply. “Please, could you pray about…” and then I may name a family member who is ill, a problem on my mind, or a situation in our world. People whose experience doesn’t include much disability interaction tend to think it’s the dominating concern or problem in our lives. While this may be true sometimes, helping them understand our greater experience or purpose can give them a second take.
Avoidance or Hostility
While these are two different reactions, I put them together here, owing to their relative infrequency and similar responses needed.
Mary told us: “When I need to interact with people at a counter, store, doctor’s office, airport check-in, etc., they tend to want to address the person who can make eye contact. Since I am totally blind, I can’t, although I try to look at them as if I can see. To avoid having them talk to my sighted companion, I sometimes say, ‘You can talk directly to me. I can hear.’ But if that doesn’t work, my companion will look away or walk away, thus forcing the person at the counter to talk to me.”
What a great way to make someone own up and face you! Note to sighted readers who have blind loved ones: be ready to step back or even walk away, encouraging greater self-confidence and control in the world of the person you love.
Audrey told us about a less humorous situation: “When it was time to move to the lab to have my blood drawn, the lab tech jumped out of her seat and ran from the area yelling, ‘Why is that dog in here? Uh uh—I cannot be around a dog!” I tried to explain that she was a well-trained and gentle dog, but she refused to come back and draw my blood.… I left the practice and told the doctor why.”
It’s important to realize there are alternatives, and we don’t need to be victims of fear, prejudice, or hostility. Exploring those alternatives, such as another doctor or sales place, may be inconvenient, but compared to the emotional impact of the above interactions, isn’t it empowering?
Nonvisual people living in a visual world should expect to face a wide range of reactions, most of which are manageable if we accept that they usually arise from a normal amount of ignorance or fear. With a little analysis, patience, humor, and advocacy, we can often interact with a degree of grace in social and customer service environments. While we aren’t responsible for the reactions of others, we can do much to control interactions from our side. It’s sometimes even possible to turn awkward moments into learning opportunities or positive interactions. Some major tips include:
- We can expect the unexpected in service interactions; we usually know a lot more about the sighted world than the sighted conversation partner knows about our world.
- We should be prepared to explain how someone can help us without assuming that person can read our minds or know our needs.
- As a sighted person, stepping back and allowing your nonvisual loved one to take charge will move mountains in fostering that person’s empowerment.
- A little humor can go a long way in lowering anxiety or getting a point across.
- A counterquestion to an inappropriate question can illustrate our point better than almost any tirade. It’s helpful to keep a few taglines in mind.
- Illustrating our capabilities by doing something well can counteract people’s low expectations or assumptions of what we can’t do.
- When we can’t alter the emotional tone or the service provided, we can still keep our cool and consider going to an authority figure.
- When faced with genuine hostility or avoidance, we can either force[SC4] interaction, or walk away, the wiser.
Sharon told us: “I traveled from one city to another by plane not long ago. The airline in the first city insisted I use a wheelchair. I Indicated that blind people can walk and do not need wheelchairs. I was told that that’s how they move people from one place to another. The first time, I went along with it. The second time, in the destination city, I would not get in the wheelchair, and I walked along as the woman pushed the empty wheelchair. The third time, in the original city, I ran into a manager who was very familiar with ADA and said he’d take care of the situation.”
Whether we decide, as Sharon did, to go to an authority figure or speak directly with someone providing service, it’s important to explain clearly what we need and what the problem is. If our gut tells us that people have good intentions, keeping a positive emotional tone from our side will let us communicate more easily. Sometimes I’ve thanked a harried customer service staff member for taking time out, or, in extreme stress, I’ve said, “Please take your time. I know you have a tough job.” Our own patience and openness usually get reflected back to us as strangers recognize our goodwill, as well as our capacity to adapt and interact. Many things in life require cooperation between at least two parties, and situations involving blindness are no exception. Being prepared mentally ahead of time is the best thing we can do, both for ourselves and for others, to create better interactions not just in the moment, but for times to come.